21.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Shingon-Shu (Shingon Buddhism) is one of the main Japanese Buddhist schools and part of the Vajrayana movement (tantric movement formed within the Mahayana in the 5th century AD).

“Shingon” means “true, correct word” or “mantra”—a form of prayer. The school was founded in Japan by the monk Kukai during the Heian period from 794 to 1185.

In 804, Kukai learned about tantra in China. When he returned to Japan, he created his creed and practice based on the knowledge he had acquired. First of all, it was associated with Vairocana Buddha (Mahavairochana Tathagata).

In China, Shubhakarasimha (637–735) became the first follower of Indian Tantric Buddhism Mi-Zong. He and his disciple Isina (683–727) created a Chinese translation of the Mahavairochana Sutra from the Sanskrit. Vajrabodhi (671–741) who was an outstanding Buddhist monk, translator, and one of the founders of esoteric Buddhism in China became engaged in the translation of the Vajrashekhara Tantra. Amoghavajra (705–774)—a famous Buddhist scholar-monk—was his apprentice. Hui Go (746–805, the seventh patriarch of esoteric Buddhism) became his successor. Kukai subsequently trained with him.



The Shingon school is focused on sutras (a collection of aphorisms in ancient Indian literature) by Buddha Mahavairochana. He is the supreme body of Buddha (dharmakaya—the absolute can be achieved with the help of higher enlightenment) and the Supreme Reality. The Diamond Crown Sutra and Great Sun Sutra are the most valuable sutras. Buddha Shakyamuni is one of the manifestations of Mahavairochana.

In Kukai’s Dharma Transmission, Vajrasattva, having been trained by Mahavairochana, hid the sutras in an iron stupa in Southern India, and eight centuries after Buddha Shakyamuni, they were revealed to people by Nagarjuna.

Meditation in the Shingon school is a deep process related to the activation of the body, words and thoughts, using the Womb World Mandala, the Diamond World Mandala and the contemplation of the full moon (a symbol of the sublime mind). All this refers to various manifestations of Buddha Mahavairochana.

Hierarchy of Teachings According to Shingon

In Hizo Hoyaku, Kukai writes about the following ten steps to enlightenment:

  1. Primitive people, madmen, ruled by their desires. They are equated to rams.
  2. Childishly gullible and ignorant people but observing ethical standards. This includes Confucianism with its compassion, good deeds and respect for elders.
  3. Gullible people with good intentions, who have no fear. They are Taoists and Hindus (primarily Vaisheshika and Samkhya) who seek rebirth in heaven. They are equated to calves that follow their mother.
  4. The Sravakas in Hinayana, who are aware of the absence of the self and accept the Buddha’s teaching regarding the five skandhas (the five components that are necessary for the formation of personality). They are called sheep or goats.
  5. Pratyekabuddhas in Hinayana, separate practitioners free from causality and karma, destroying ignorance. They are called deer or rhinos.
  6. Mahayana consciousness which is the path of the bodhisattvas who have learned that the physical world was created by their minds. They disclose a single consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna). This is yogāchāra, which exists in the Japanese school of Hosso-Shyu.
  7. Awareness of one’s unbornness (middle way)—Madhyamaka, understanding the identity of matter and emptiness. This recognizes the two stages of truth and establishes ways to comprehend emptiness. This includes the Japanese school Sanron.
  8. Recognition of the unity of consciousness and interconnectedness of everything in the world. This corresponds to the Japanese school Tendai.
  9. Comprehension of the Supreme consciousness Dharmakaya (the supreme body of the Buddha, the absolute, which can be comprehended with the help of higher enlightenment). This includes the Japanese school Kegon.
  10. Seeing through tantra with a completely free mind. This includes Shingon.

Mahavairochana tathagata

Kukai believed that Buddha, the Body of Dharma (Dharmakaya) Mahavairochana, proclaimed two sutras of Shingon. The identification of Mahavairochana with the body of the Dharma as the Supreme Reality is a significant event in the philosophy of Buddhism because the Body of Dharma acquired transcendence and went beyond sensory experience. Phenomena (Dharmas) belong to the Supreme Reality, and at the same time, they are considered its manifestation. Enlightenment is the achievement of the perfect sacred hidden consciousness.

According to the teachings of Kukai, everyone, through the humanity of Mahavairochana and the practice of
Yoga Samadhi, can feel the moment of Reality, becoming Mahavairochana.

Kukai, in his Clarification of the Meaning of the Principle of Attaining Buddhahood with the Present Body, substantiated his understanding of Mahavairochana as the Body of Dharma. The understanding combines six principles, but three components: the six Great (elements): earth, water, fire, wind (air), consciousness and space, four Mandalas and three Mysteries. They are equal to the “nature”, “kind” and “action” of Mahavairochana. The Six Great (Elements) create all buddhas in all spiritual and material worlds.

Kukai believed that

  • Maha-Mandala—the universe as a material continuation of Mahavairochana,
  • Samaya-Mandala—the universe as the existence of “intention” of Mahavairochana,
  • Dharma-Mandala—the universe through the revelation of truth (Dharmas),
  • Karma-Mandala—the universe through the activity of Karma Mahavairochana.

These are the four mandalas.

The Three Mysteries are the inexplicable actions of Mahavairochana’s body, words and mind.

Features of shingon

The Shingon school and the Shinto tradition (Japan’s traditional polytheistic religion based on the animistic beliefs of the ancient Japanese) are connected like Tibetan Buddhism and the Bon tradition.

Mahavairochana means the “Great Shining Light”. In Shinto, the Great Sun Goddess Amaterasu-Ōmikami is the primary goddess. In the Middle Ages, the movement of Ryobu-Shinto, a mixture of Shinto and the Shingon school, was born. There Amaterasu and other deities (kami) were considered incarnations of Buddha Mahavairochana.

Tantric Buddhism, the pantheon of which consisted of many Hindu deities, created the basis for Shinto-Buddhist syncretism and helped to stimulate the emergence of a special movement in Buddhism—Shugendo. The main modern Shugendo temple (Todzan movement) is located in Kyoto at the Shingon Daigo-ji School Monastery.

Shingon movements

Shingon movements

There are two main directions in the Shingon school: the traditional Kogi Shingon-Shu (the school of the true word of the old meaning) and Shingi Shingon-Shu (school of the true new meaning).

The Shingon headquarters has been located on Mount Koya-san in Wakayama Prefecture since the time of Kukai. There, the monk Kakuban founded a center (Dai Damboin). The Shingon school of Kongobu-ji Temple did not consider it an official center however.

Rayu, a supporter of Kakuban, created a new branch, the main temple of which, Negoro-ji, was located at a distance of 25 kilometres from Koya-san. In 1585, Negoro-ji was destroyed, but Kakuban’s supporters opened two new temples, the Hasedera Temple and the Chishakuin Temple.

The traditional Shingon school consists of several branches: Toji, Daikaku-ji, Zentsu-ji, Daigo, Yamashina, Omuro (Ninna-ji) and Sennu-ji.

Nowadays, the Shingon school has 45 directions, 13 thousand temples and monasteries and about 16 million followers.

The main temple of Shingon-Yamashina Kaju-ji Buddhists was built by Emperor Daigo in 900.

Briefly, the basics of the teachings of the Shingon school can be formulated as follows:

  • The incomprehensibility of Buddha Mahavairochana is at the heart of everything
  • all realities, Buddhas and bodhisattvas are incarnations of Mahavairochana
  • a person can attain Buddhahood by the comprehension of one’s divine manifestations in this world